Image for Osaka Withdrawal Underscores Silent Presence of Mental Distress

Tennis star Naomi Osaka’s abrupt withdrawal from the French Open serves as a reminder that mental distress can plague anyone, rich or poor. The indiscriminate presence of mental distress across occupations, incomes and families requires patience, understanding and empathy. 

Despite her prowess and prominence in a high-profile sport, Osaka is a 23-year-old human being. By all accounts, she is shy and uncomfortable at press conferences. Her professional tennis contract requires her to talk to the press. When she refused, officials at the French Open gave her a stern warning and fined her $15,000. Then officials from the other four major tennis tournaments, including the US Open, piled on, threatening to remove her from the pro circuit, which she joined when she was just 16. Osaka withdrew and flew from Paris back to her home in Los Angeles.

Only Osaka knows the depths of her distress. What we do know is that wealth and status don’t make individuals immune from mental distress. Mental distress is not always visible, despite its prevalence. Out of shame or fear, many people who suffer some form of anxiety or depression keep their condition secret from employers, coworkers and even friends.

Osaka’s action to place self-care before her professional duties may very well embolden others harboring mental distress to break their silence and act on their own behalf. These disclosures could uncover uncomfortable situations, ranging from toxic work conditions to embarrassing home-life circumstances. The source of mental distress, especially in young adults, could be as simple as hard-to-shake feelings of insecurity or a lack of self-confidence.

Bosses, coworkers, friends and family members need to be more alert to signs of mental distress, even in people who seem on top of their game and project a confident aura. This demands a better understanding of how mental distress can manifest itself in symptoms such as lack of sleep, loss of appetite, heightened emotions, frequent headaches and social withdrawal.

Access to mental health resources can play an important role. Company health insurance policies should include mental and behavioral health coverage, including referrals to qualified mental health professionals. Personal leave days should be available. A dose of patience can help, too.

The main thing to remember is that it’s okay to talk about mental distress and mental illness. We talk about broken bones, emergency surgery and cancer. There is no reason to avoid talking about mental issues in the same sympathetic way.

There is a fine, sometimes hard-to-distinguish line between over-reacting and ignoring someone’s signs of mental distress. Tennis officials acted as if they assumed Osaka’s refusal to appear at press conferences was a star flouting her stardom. They apparently didn’t consider there was something very different and very personal behind her refusal. The sympathetic reactions from fellow athletes showed the importance and value of patience, understanding and empathy.

Being attuned to workplace cases of mental distress can be easily lampooned as politically correct. That critique should be rejected as old-school ignorance. Mental distress is not new; it is just becoming more visible and acknowledged. As with any other issue, mental distress should be addressed in positive, affirming ways to remove any vestige of a stigma.

For employers still trying to recover from the economic wreckage of the pandemic, this may seem like one more stone to carry on their shoulders. Chances are good some of the people quietly groaning under mental distress are some of the hardest-hit employers who came close to losing their businesses and now face a struggle of finding enough workers as the economy recovers.

Many reasons have been floated for why so many jobs remain open. One of the most compelling reasons is lingering mental distress in women who left the workplace to care for children, workers who don’t want to give up remote work and people forced into early retirement from jobs they loved. Pointing accusatory fingers isn’t a substitute for patience, understanding and empathy.

The main thing to remember is that it’s okay to talk about mental distress and mental illness. We talk about broken bones, emergency surgery and cancer. There is no reason to avoid talking about mental issues in the same sympathetic way. A conversation and a helping hand can reassure someone under mental distress, letting them know they have people in their corner.

Osaka, who is a social activist, the recurring star of a Japanese-produced manga and co-owner of a women’s professional soccer team, had the courage to risk her acclaim for her own care. All of us should have the courage to give the people in our lives the space and support they need to make the same decision for themselves.